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Podcast 31: Passchendaele

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It was a curious kind of sucking kind of mud. It ‘drew’ at you, not like a quicksand, but a real monster that sucked at you…

The Ypres Salient was one of the most intensely fought over sections of the Western Front. Early in 1917, the British high command laid down plans to seize control of the area once and for all. The starting point was the capture of the Messines Ridge, to the south of Ypres. To help with this, a series of powerful mines were laid deep under the German front line. Bryan Frayling of the Royal Engineers was one of those involved in preparing the mines. He described his anticipation on the morning of the attack, 7 June.

I had hoped very, very much that I would push the switch in that blew up Spanbroekmolen, which was the largest of them and which I’d helped to charge. Instead I was ordered to get up on Kemmel Hill that night and act as official observer for all the Tunnelling Companies. I had two subalterns with me; we put out sticks, lining sticks, on the correct bearings, and waited in pitch dark. When zero came, my anxiety of course was that some of the mines had been sitting in extremely wet ground and the explosive was ammonal which doesn’t go off when it’s wet. It was in soldered waterproof tins but we wondered how they’d fared…

Frayling needn’t have worried –19 mines went up at 3.10 am. The result was devastating. Lieutenant John Royle of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company witnessed the impact of the explosions.

The whole hill, the whole hillside, everything rocked like a ship at sea. The noise from the artillery was deafening, the thunder from our charges was enormous. The infantry dashed forward under a barrage and kept sending back thousands and thousands of prisoners. I couldn’t tell you how many. They came back through our dugouts and we were able to see them and they were absolutely demoralised. We were all so happy that we didn’t know what to do. Then when we got a look at the craters there were lumps of blue clay as big as a small building lying about there. Our Hill 60 crater was 100 yards across from lip to lip and still 45 feet deep. We thought the war was over…

Messines Ridge quickly fell into Allied hands. The whole operation was a stunning success. But it was not capitalised upon, and the Germans were able to regroup. The next stage of the attack began on 31 July. After a two week bombardment of German lines, the British attacked near Pilckem. British officer Ulrick Burke recalled the morning of the battle.

Immediately the daylight came, they had their rum ration. The Quartermaster was always good on these occasions, it was practically a double, because he’d filched or watered or done something to it to let us have some more. Anyhow, that was done. Then you gave the men your last orders. They had brief sort of ladders, two bits of wood nailed together with three or four cross pieces to form the ladder to help them get out. Five minutes before the actual time of going over, which was the worst time for the troops, that’s when their feelings might break. You’d say, ‘Five minutes to go!’ You’d shout it down the left and right of your sector. Then, ‘Four minutes… three minutes… two minutes’ and ‘half a minute!’ and then you’d say, ‘10 seconds… get ready! Over…!’

Clifford Lane of the Hertfordshire Regiment was one of those who advanced on the German lines that day.

At dawn in the morning about, we were told, 800 guns opened up and we went over the top. It was all quite nice; we didn’t have anybody firing at us, not for the first quarter of an hour or so, anyway. We were getting along – strung out in what we called open formation, that’s a couple of yards between each man – and we came under long-distance machine-gun fire. As we were going along, the man on the left of me was hit in the arm and the man on the right of me was hit in the heart, he died – he probably died, we weren’t allowed to stop, anyway but he did, we knew he died afterwards. It missed me altogether, that was just the luck of the war.

The British made significant gains on 31 July, despite attacking in increasingly heavy rain and meeting with determined German resistance. Ivor Watkins remembered the progress made by his regiment, the 15th Welch.

As we got up from the canal bank to make our advance, we went through some light 18 pounders on the way up over the ridge. They were belting away as hard as they could. The terrain was pretty difficult, owing to shell holes and most of all they were very, very deep so we had to be careful we didn’t fall in. If I remember rightly there were tapes had been laid out giving some sort of direction on where to go but it was a scramble to get between the shell holes. But forward we went, under fire – definitely under fire – a little of everything, a little of everything. There were some casualties but we finally reached our destination and we landed up in a shell hole or two and gradually got into a position where we could defend whatever we had gained.

Unseasonal, heavy and persistent wet weather forced a temporary halt to operations around Ypres. During August, there were just three days when it didn’t rain. Walter Cook of the Royal Army Medical Corps described the misery this caused.

It rained for three solid weeks and the plight of the men in the trenches in the northern part of Belgium was absolutely impossible. It was so impossible that the men coming out of the trenches who were wounded had to get rid of their kilts because they couldn’t walk because the pleats were covered in this horrible slime which made such a weight. I’ve never seen conditions like it; in every trench it was two feet of water!

The heavy rainfall soon turned the Ypres Salient into a muddy quagmire. Despite this, the pause in the fighting was only brief. On 16 August, British troops were back in action at Langemarck. They attacked in terrible conditions, suffered heavy casualties and made no real breakthrough. Alan Hanbury-Sparrow commanded the 2nd Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment in the battle.

I went forward and I suddenly heard a shout, ‘Get down, Sir, get down!’ and I was amongst my own men all in the shell holes. I realised we had hardly an officer left at all and they were beginning to run short of ammunition. The attack on the right had completely failed, the crucial attack of the division on the right had completely failed to make any headway. We were in a rather precarious position. The Brigadier came up and, whilst he was there, there was a sudden stamped of our men; they were driven off the hill and they fell back. We fell back and we took refuge behind an old parapet that I should think had been built in 1914. It was not thick enough, really, to be bulletproof. And there about 50 of us took refuge.

The disappointing results triggered a change in leadership. General Sir Hubert Gough was replaced by General Sir Herbert Plumer in overall command of the offensive. Plumer suspended fighting to prepare for his next move. Better weather, coupled with solid planning, delivered success in the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge on 20 September. British officer Douglas Wimberley described the crucial role of artillery in the battle.

The bombardment next morning when it started was the heaviest bombardment I’d ever seen in that war. I think there was a gun to every nine and a half yards of front. When the bombardment was on, there was such a din going on from the swish of the shells going over our heads and the bursting shells in front of us that we felt no fear, because we couldn’t hear the explosions of the German shells fairly near us. The 51st Highland Division took their objectives and all seemed to be going well – we had various counter-attacks which were beaten off.

The battle was a success for the British. The Germans staged a number of counter attacks but key objectives were secured in the following few days. German officer Hartwig Pohlmann fought the British advance.

On the 20th September, the great attack of the Highland Division met our own regiment. It was a drumfire of several hours and this drumfire lasted on even after the Highlanders had stormed our front line and were now trying to get onwards through all these shell holes. We were started by our battalion commander and I had a platoon of grenadiers. We sprang from shell hole to shell hole. The drumfire was as heavy that I didn’t notice the singular shells. We advanced and drove the Highlanders a bit back, but we couldn’t reach the first line where our third battalion had been vanquished. They were all gone, partly dead, partly taken prisoner; we didn’t see any of them again.

British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, was encouraged by the progress made in late September, and ordered the offensive to continue. On 4 October British and Anzac troops surged over the Broodseinde Ridge. W Bunning of the 2nd Australian Division was one of those who took part in its capture that day.

The 24th [Battalion] went through onto their objective which was the Blue Line. My casualties in my company were not really heavy, not as heavy as one expected from the early shelling. After we’d consolidated, one moved forward just to check up and see the fields of fire suitable for your men, siting your positions. When I got to the top of Broodseinde Ridge it was really surprising to look across and see before you the green fields of Belgium. Actual trees! Grass and fields, of course churned up a good deal by barrage shells – but it was, as far as we were concerned, open country! Then to look back, from where we came, back to Ypres…. There was devastation. It was just at dawn time and you could then see why the gunners had had such a gruesome time. You could see the flashes of all the guns, right from Broodseinde right back to the very gates of Menin Gate.

Although the day had been an overall success, returning rain soon turned the battlefield into a swamp. For Charles Carrington of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, these conditions took their toll.

We settled down on our objective in a group of shell holes and there we sat for three days. On the second day, it began to rain and rained continuously so that the bog of Passchendaele spread out into a lake. To begin with, we were sitting up to our knees in mud and water, very short of sleep and having just been through this very severe mental strain of the battle itself. After this there was no further fighting. The Germans did not in fact counter-attack us at that point, however they shelled us very scientifically. And on the second and third days we just sat in the mud being very heavily and very systematically shelled with pretty heavy stuff.

October was another rain-drenched month. Thomas Phillips of the Machine Gun Corps described conditions at Ypres when he arrived there that month.

So we were marched into Ypres with the baggage and machine guns in a lorry and up through Hellfire Corner going up the Menin Road where old Jerry used to shell all day and night. We passed that alright up Menin Road about half a mile… oh! What ruin… the horses, mules, men, everything dead across. I never saw such destruction in my life. And big shells coming over, bursting. We managed and we didn’t catch a shell at all. Then we had to advance up two small ridges from the main road and there we came across small tanks that had been knocked out or stuck in the mud; they were no damn good at all.

The success at Broodseinde spurred Haig on to seek further gains. On 9 October at Poelcappelle, exhausted troops were ordered into the attack again. But a change in battlefield conditions in the intervening days meant the earlier success was not repeated. No significant advance was made and there were heavy casualties. Lancashire Fusilier Bert Fearns described his role in the failed advance.

We were surprised that there wasn’t as much machine-gun fire as we expected but we did go through – it’s difficult for me to say how big the area was, but I’d say it was about possibly 100 yards by 100 yards – and there was a mass of our fellows had been caught by low exploding shrapnel and they’d been absolutely slaughtered. It was the first time I smelt human blood – fresh – and it’s the most horrible smell I’ve ever smelt. But they were lying there all over the place, just mutilated. We just had to keep going on and it’s just as well we did as it could have unnerved us if we’d been too long in that place. I’ve never forgotten it…

Despite worsening battlefield conditions, the Ypres offensive carried on. The next target was the village of Passchendaele – which became the informal title given to the whole campaign. An ill-prepared attack in pouring rain was made on 12 October. There were heavy casualties and it was, overall, a failure – as British officer Alfred Irwin had predicted.

It was a dreadful experience. The weather was continuously bad for weeks before that action. I think I very nearly lost my job as a battalion commander because I sent in a written protest to the brigade that we couldn’t be successful. I was very severely told off for that. I don’t think our leading troops got more than 50 yards. We simply stuck in the mud. Anybody carrying a Lewis gun or any heavy weight like that simply couldn’t get on, it was beyond his strength. I spent that night in a horrible shell hole with my orderlies, one of whom was killed sitting on the top of the shell hole. But there was never any chance of success and this I had reported to the brigade as my considered opinion and endless lives were lost that night just for nothing at all. But we ought not to have been allowed to go at all.

By late October, the men stationed on the Ypres Salient were battle-weary and living in impossible conditions. But Haig had to press on. A second attack on Passchendaele opened on 26 October. Graham Greenwell described the demoralised state of one of his men the following day.

We were going to do one of these attacks at Passchendaele and we had to attack a line of German blockhouses which were situated around Passchendaele in seas of mud. Well, this boy had just joined the company, he was younger than me. He suddenly collapsed and said that he couldn’t go on. So I said sternly to him, ‘You get up and go on, if you go on, you may well not be shot, but if you lie here or go back, you’ll be shot for a certainty!’ I remember the words I used to him! He pulled himself together, and he got through. The attack, like frankly the whole of the Battle of Passchendaele, was a failure.

Passchendaele Ridge was captured by the Canadians on 10 November and the campaign finally drew to a close on the 20th. Although some of its stages had met with success, the offensive is now seen as having been an overall strategic failure, at huge cost of life. Passchendaele is also synonymous with the worst of battlefield conditions on the Western Front – principally due to the deadly swamps of mud that covered the battleground. Lewis gunner Jack Dillon described the mud.

Now the mud at Passchendaele was very viscous indeed, very tenacious, it stuck to you. Your putties were solid mud anyway. But it stuck to you all over, it slowed you down. It got into the bottom of your trousers, you were covered with mud. The mud there wasn’t liquid, it wasn’t porridge; it was a curious kind of sucking kind of mud. When you got off this track with your load, it ‘drew’ at you, not like a quicksand, but a real monster that sucked at you.

Tracks, usually made from duckboards, snaked across the Ypres Salient for men and animals to move around. British sapper George Clayton found a novel way of constructing pathways for the troops.

Round about that area, it was all flat and the continuous shell fire had smashed all the drainage system up, all the drainage, it was really a quagmire. Our job was really to make roads or footpaths for the troops to walk on in and out. There was always plenty of bully beef and in there was about 144 tins of bully beef in a box, a strong hardwood box that they were put in. We used to put them down, they sank down about a couple of foot I daresay, and one end to end of that directly we’ve got a good hard footpath to walk on. That was some of the footpaths we made for the troops to walk on.

Unknown numbers of men and animals drowned in the mud around Passchendaele. Stretcher-bearer William Collins explained the ease with which this could happen.

It was a nightmare, because all you had was a couple of duckboards side by side and either side of it was about ten feet of mud with the top of a tank sticking out of it here and there. If you fell off, it would take a traction engine to pull you out, almost. It was that deep – it was absolute sucking mud. There were cases when one or two men slipped off the duckboards and it took a couple of their comrades to pull them out gradually, inch by inch, when they managed to keep their arms out and they pulled them out, inch by inch, out of the mud and got them on again, on the boards again…

The conditions made front line service even more difficult than usual – particularly, as NCO Richard Tobin recalled, as there was no real front line…

When you got up there, there was no front line; there was no line at all, just a series of posts scraped in the mud. Here a machine gun’s crew, there a few riflemen, further on a Lewis gun’s crew and in some cases the battle depth of your battalion was a thousand yards of these posts bogged about. You couldn’t get to any of them in daylight, because you were under enemy observation the whole time. You couldn’t get food nor rations nor ammunition or anything up in the daylight, because these duckboards were taped by the Germans and they were shelling them the whole time. In most places, if shells start dropping you run to the right, you ran to the left and to get some cover but if you were on the duckboards you couldn’t run. There was mud to your right and mud to your left and you had to face it and go on.

Artillery played a key role throughout the Passchendaele campaign. But manoeuvring guns across the muddy ground could be an almost impossible task – as Richard Talbot Kelly, of the Royal Field Artillery, found out.

By this time in the war over 80% of the German heavy artillery spent its time plastering our gun areas, just as ours did the same to theirs. So that, day and night, really one lived in a permanent hail of shell fire. We had a gun knocked out almost the moment we moved into our battle positions for the Passchendaele barrages. Later on, a damaged gun of ours we tried to send back to ordnance – it vanished into the mud of an unseen shell hole and for all I know it is still there.

The huge volume of shelling around Ypres not only devastated the landscape and smashed up pathways, but caused a high death toll. The difficulties of retrieving corpses from the mud had an unpleasant result, as experienced by British private Donald Hodge.

One of things that I remember chiefly there was the smell because the ammunition for the artillery had to be taken up on pack horses, with three 18-pounders on each side of the horse. So if the poor animals got hit and killed their bodies were laid out as food for the rats, you see, and of course the stench was abominable.

Passchendaele was remembered by most of its veterans as one of the worst periods of their war service. The campaign did not deliver on its promise of a key breakthrough in Belgium and the conditions were almost indescribable. Like many, British gunner John Palmer reached his lowest ebb during the battle.

It was mud, mud, everywhere: mud in the trenches, mud in front of the trenches, behind the trenches. Every shell hole was a sea of filthy oozing mud. I was tired of seeing infantry sinking back in that morass never to come out alive again. I was tired of all the carnage, of all the sacrifice that we had there just to gain about twenty-five yards. And there were many days when actually I don’t remember them; I don’t remember what happened because I was so damned tired. The fatigue in that mud was something terrible. It did get you and you reached a point where there was no beyond, you just could not go any further. And that’s the point I’d reached.

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Listen out for Podcast 32: Gunners